The European Space Agency (ESA) successfully launched the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) space probe on a mission to investigate whether Jupiter’s icy moons could potentially host extraterrestrial life. The launch took place on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, after a previous attempt was postponed due to the risk of lightning.
Despite cloudy skies, the rocket lifted off as planned at 09:14 am local time and separated from the rocket’s upper stage at an altitude of 1,500 kilometers, 27 minutes after the launch. JUICE will follow a long and complex trajectory to reach Jupiter, which is located 628 million kilometers from Earth. The probe will use gravitational boosts from fly-bys of Earth, the Moon, and Venus in 2025, and another fly-by of Earth in 2029 to gain enough speed and adjust its trajectory for the final insertion into Jupiter’s orbit in July 2031.
The main objective of the JUICE mission is to study Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede, which is the only moon in the solar system known to have its own magnetic field. Ganymede and another Jovian moon, Europa, are believed to have vast oceans of liquid water beneath their icy surfaces, making them prime candidates for hosting life. The probe will also study another Jovian moon, Callisto, and Jupiter itself, using its 10 scientific instruments, including an optical camera, ice-penetrating radar, spectrometer, and magnetometer.
The JUICE mission is groundbreaking as it will be the first time a spacecraft from Europe will venture into the outer solar system beyond Mars. The probe is equipped with a record 85 square meters of solar panels to collect as much solar energy as possible near Jupiter, where sunlight is 25 times weaker than on Earth. The mission, costing 1.6 billion euros, is a significant milestone for ESA and its partners in advancing space exploration and scientific research.
The JUICE mission is part of a larger effort by space agencies around the world to explore Jupiter’s icy moons and search for signs of potential life beyond Earth. NASA is also planning a similar mission, the Europa Clipper, which is set to launch in October 2024 and will focus on studying Europa, Ganymede’s sibling moon. While neither JUICE nor Europa Clipper will be able to directly detect the existence of alien life, they aim to gather crucial data and establish whether these moons have the right conditions to support life.
The success of the JUICE mission would have significant implications for our understanding of the potential for life beyond Earth. Scientists believe that if life exists on these moons, it is likely to be in the form of primitive microbes capable of surviving in extreme environments, similar to bacteria found on Earth. Confirmation of the presence of liquid water oceans and other favorable conditions on these moons would greatly enhance the possibility of finding habitable environments elsewhere in our solar system and beyond.
However, the JUICE mission also faces challenges, including the need for further missions that could land on the moons’ surfaces and conduct more detailed investigations to confirm the existence of life. Nevertheless, the launch of JUICE represents a significant step forward in our quest to explore the mysteries of Jupiter’s icy moons and unravel the potential for extraterrestrial life in our cosmic neighborhood.
In addition to the scientific objectives of the mission, the successful launch of JUICE is also a significant milestone for the European space industry. The Ariane 5 rocket used for the launch is expected to be replaced by the next-generation Ariane 6 rocket, and repeated delays in the Ariane 6 development, coupled with Russia’s decision to withdraw its Soyuz rockets in response to the Ukrainian conflict.